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A pile of sewage

Posted by Richard Sunday, December 26, 2004

It is rather fitting that one of the first stories offered by Christopher Booker the day after Christmas should be about shit – or "sewage", if you prefer the polite word.

His story actually harps back to an item he ran in August when we learned that Scottish Water was in trouble with its sewage treatment plant at Daldowie outside Glasgow. Here, a plant costing £65 million had been installed to turn 50,000 tons of sewage sludge each year - nearly half of Scotland's entire sewage residue - into pellets.

For four years, this had been feeding Scottish Power's giant 2,400-megawatt power station at Longannet in Fife with a "carbon-neutral" equivalent of 42,000 tons of coal, enough to provide electricity for 30,000 homes. But it was then the subject of a legal action awaiting judgment in the Scottish courts, this whole process is threatened with disaster.

Last winter the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) ruled that the sewage pellets were not "fuel", but "waste". When the EC Waste Incineration Directive (WID), 2000/76 comes into law at the end of the year, Scottish Power would no longer be allowed to use the pellets to make electricity.

This set Scottish Water a huge problem. Under other EU laws it cannot dump sewage sludge at sea or in landfills. It is becoming all but impossible to use sewage sludge as fertiliser on farm land. On Sepa's interpretation of EC law, the only practical means of disposal was to burn it at great expense in incinerators - but only so long as these served no useful purpose, such as generating electricity. And the incinerators did not yet exist.

As we recounted at the time, Scottish Power had sought judicial review of Sepa's ruling, citing cases in the European Court of Justice that seemed to justify its claim that where a material can be used as fuel, it is not waste.

The judgment had been expected in September, but in fact it was only last Wednesday that the judge, Lord Reed, finally came up with his ruling. He fully upheld Sepa's interpretation of EU law and, unless an appeal succeeds, this means that Scottish Water will be in serious trouble.

The only way it will be able to dispose of sewage will be to have it incinerated, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. In other words, it is all right to burn it, but only in a way which produces nothing useful.

Writes Booker, "Well done, Sepa and Lord Reed. And well done Brussels, for bringing us yet another of those ‘environmental benefits’ which Margaret Beckett likes to argue are the chief reason why we should all vote for the new EU constitution."

We are going to hear a lot more of this through the coming year. On top of the fridge debaçle – where incidentally, the Manchester clean-up is costing £850,000 and not the quarter of a million reported by the Telegraph on Friday - more and more of the mad Brussels diktats are about to kick in, not least the Waste Electronic Equipment (WEE) and the End of Life Vehicles Directives, turning our waste system into an even bigger shambles.

With a bit of luck, during this coming year, the mess the EU has made of our waste policy will become so obvious, as car wrecks litter the streets and the epidemic of fly-tipping mulitplies, that everyone will be able to see the the EU for exactly what it is - a pile of sewage.